Does the Identity Defense Still Work?
Contemplating Yuh-Line Niou
A couple of weeks ago, my old colleague Will Bredderman, along with Shannon Vavra, published a story with the Daily Beast about Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, one of the top contenders in the open Democratic primary for the new 10th Congressional District in New York City. Bredderman detailed how Niou’s father, Chorng-Shyr Niou, had a connection to the massive Panama Papers leak of 2016, which exposed more than 214,000 tax-dodging firms and triggered prosecutions across the world. One of the businesses exposed was a firm called Tri-Stone Ltd., an agent of the notorious Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. (Panama’s attorney general labeled Mossack Fonseca “a criminal organization that is dedicated to hiding money assets from suspicious origins.”)
Organized in the British Virgin Islands, an infamous tax haven, Tri-Stone Ltd. had a name attached to it: Chorng-Shyr Niou. And the address was a Seattle townhouse that was the home of his three children, including Yuh-Line Niou. It’s unclear what business purpose Tri-Stone served before it became inactive in 2013 and Niou’s campaign declined to discuss its purpose on the record to the Daily Beast.
According to the Daily Beast, Yuh-Line Niou controlled her father and mother’s finances in America and signed the documents to acquire the property. Yuh-Line Niou told the website she had never heard of Tri-Stone Ltd. or knew about its activities. She acknowledged that she and her two younger siblings were the main occupants of the Seattle address associated with the entity at the time of its incorporation, as her brother and sister attended college while she worked as a lobbyist in Washington State. She maintained her parents resided during that period at their property in Vancouver.
The Daily Beast goes on to detail how Chorng-Shyr Niou, a longtime researcher and director at the Chinese state-owned Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp, allowed his daughter to become his power of attorney in Vancouver and Seattle and permitted her to acquire the Seattle address her father used to create the firm. Since no one in the Niou family nor her campaign could offer further details about the transactions, Bredderman quoted several outside experts, hoping to add some context to the business dealings. “Rich Chinese people usually have two goals: 1) Get their money out of China (buying real estate is a normal trick for this), in case things go south with the Party,” James Lewis, a former diplomat, wrote to the Daily Beast. “2) Avoid paying taxes (not confined to wealthy Chinese).”
Other experts are quoted as well—read the piece to get the full scope—and a greater picture begins to emerge. Before the story’s publication, Niou refused multiple requests to comment on the record. But it was after the story’s publication when the Niou campaign really went to work.
“We are all profoundly disappointed in The Daily Beast for publishing a piece rife with anti-immigrant stereotypes and baseless insinuations,” the lengthy statement from her campaign, which was posted to Twitter, reads. “The Beast never directly claims that Yuh-Line or her family did anything wrong—because they didn’t. Instead, this piece traffics in racist stereotypes about Chinese Americans at a time of rising anti-Asian hate across the United States.”
The statement says that the Beast story “falsely insinuates that Yuh-Line’s parents set up a shell company in order to quietly sneak money out of China. They also imply that the Nious used an offshore company to buy their Seattle home. This is false.”
“The Beast heavily hints that Yuh-Line’s family are wealthy foreign elites—another hurtful and untrue stereotype. Yuh-Line’s mother was a nurse. Her father was an engineer. Yuh-Line personally contributed to the down payment on the Seattle home referenced in the article out of her own savings … This article twists a non-story into one saturated with speculation and anti-Asian tropes. It is profoundly irresponsible and our campaign condemns it.”